The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

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There’s nothing like a good comeback story. Tiger Woods, Lazarus, English teams in Champions League finals. Something about it taps into our humanity. Nothing is ever truly lost.

That is true, in various ways, for the characters in Imogen Hermes Gowar’s remarkable novel about, well, not really a mermaid.

Every published book is an achievement. So much goes into it, from the germination of an idea to the laborious editing process. There is a line in the author’s acknowledgements at the end of the book which thanks two friends ‘who in the face of all my qualms insisted it must exist’. It’s not difficult to imagine the author sitting at a desk early in the morning before work, feeling that all is lost. And yet here, however many years later, we have a novel that somehow feels like more of an achievement than anything else we’ve read for a long time.

We are taken back to late 18th century London, to its up and coming areas (Mary-le-Bone!!) and its houses of ill-repute. The real achievement is that the whole novel is told in what feels like an entirely authentic voice, but always with an eye on the modern.

We heard the author talk at a ‘New Writers’ event at Foyle’s last year, and learnt that she had worked in museums, which is evident in her attention to the detail of the objects she involves in the book. Like any good museum what she does most remarkably is bring to life this time past. Quirks of language and life are carefully documented but, unlike some writers of historical fiction, are never laboured. They’re there to draw you in to a scene, not to show off the author’s powers of research. Any expert will never tell you everything they know; they’ll just pick out the best bits. That’s what the author does her, and in doing so creates functional characters, from the floppy Mr Hancock to the (not quite) interminable pimp Mrs Chappell.

There are comebacks, or perhaps re-births, for characters in the novel. But there are also strands that seem to suggest that issues comeback. Storylines allude to modern issues, and perhaps aim to cast light on their societal entrenchment. The bacchanalian behaviour of MPs at a brothel party, for example, might be read as a comment on the way of modern politics. Or it might just be what happened 200-odd years ago amongst the upper classes. Regardless, Gowar’s prose is so vivid and precise that it feels real and relevant.

The novel really belongs to the wonderful Angelica, who lights up every page she’s on. She’s both a pantomime character and a well-considered, sympathetic character at once, casting light on the difficulties women had in the 18th Century, and suggesting that not all of these are gone. The scenes where she throws caution to the wind and decides to let the world see her as she is made us want to stand and applaud. And when she’s down and out…? Well, you’ll have to read it.

Angelica does, however, give rise to our one very minor complaint: the name of the book. If only because the title tells you slightly more than one usually wants a title to. There are various threads in the book, and one is concluded for the reader before she even starts. 

But that’s not the author’s issue. She has produced an other-worldly novel that somehow, despite the magical realism and the many decades that have passed since it was set, feels real and relevant. Nothing is ever really lost. The past can still talk to us. A remarkable achievement.